German insurers want prison for docs who take pharma kickbacks

Last year, a German court told doctors they couldn't be punished for taking money or gifts from drugmakers--and neither can the companies, even if they're paying physicians specifically to prescribe their drugs. Now, state-backed insurers are calling for a major about-face. They want doctors who take kickbacks to go to prison.

The German insurers say doctors who accept cash and "gratuities" from drug companies should face up to three years in the hoosegow. They've called on government officials to act, Deutsche Welle reports. The ball is now in Health Minister Daniel Bahr's court. Don't expect a decision anytime soon, his spokeswoman says; the issue is too complex for that.

Per last summer's ruling by the Federal Court of Justice, the laws themselves need to be changed. That court determined that doctors who freelance for the national health service can't be penalized for accepting bribes. The ruling came in a case against Ratiopharm, now owned by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries ($TEVA), which had been accused of paying doctors to prescribe its products.

Transparency advocates say the U.S. and U.K. have more stringent rules about medical corruption. In Germany, they say, doctors don't see payments from drug companies as a problem. Some politicians say there might be thousands of cases of corruption. "I've got the impression that the medical profession doesn't really give it much thought," anti-corruption advocate Malte Passarge told the news organization.

The German debate follows years of controversy in the U.S. After some high-profile scandals involving doctors and researchers' financial ties with drugmakers, pharma companies have been disclosing payments made to physicians, including speakers' fees and research money. The Affordable Care Act included mandated disclosures, but specific rules haven't been issued yet.

- see the story from Deutsche Welle